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Scientists just created some of the most powerful muscles in existence
In a surprising breakthrough for the world of materials science, researchers have created some of the most powerful artificial muscles we've ever seen. And they did it with simple fishing line. These freakishly strong and cheap muscles could revolutionize robotics, and perhaps one day our own bodies.
Above: A "breathing" textile, engineered from Baughman's team's new artificial musculature
A Clever Twist on Old Technology
How do you get muscle out of a fishing line? First, you have to create tension that can be released.
It's a simple process that goes by an equally simple moniker: "twist insertion." Researchers led by Baughman describe the technique in detail in this week's issue of Science, but the gist is as straightforward as it sounds. One end of a high-strength polymer fiber (like a 50 pound test-line, for example, available at pretty much any sporting goods store) is held fast, while the other is weighted and twisted. Twist a little and the line becomes an artificial "torsional" muscle that exerts energy by spinning. Twist a lot, however, and something interesting happens: the cord coils over on itself, creating an ordered series of stacking loops:
There's a decent chance you've seen this kind of looping before, maybe while twiddling your shoelace, a length of excess yarn, or – who knows? – a fishing line between your thumb and forefinger. Another good example, Baughman tells io9, is a rubber-band-powered plane. "If you finger-spin the propeller, initially what you see is that the rubber band just twists," he says, "but if you add more twist you get these nucleated coils."
First author Carter Haines, a PhD Candidate in Baughman's lab, demonstrates twist insertion | Credit: UT Dallas
And it turns out that in high-strength, low-cost polymer fibers like fishing line and sewing thread, the emergence of these coils signals a fundamental shift in the material's properties. It goes from being an artificial torsional muscle to a powerful, artificial tensile muscle. That means it becomes an actuator that contracts when activated, just like the muscles in our bodies do. What's more, these artificial muscles are really, really strong.
Study co-author Márcio D. Lima demonstrates the strength and energy density of his team's artificial muscles
"The energy per cycle that we obtain from these artificial muscles, and their weightlifting abilities, are extraordinary," says Baughman. "They can lift about 100 times heavier weight and generate about 100-times higher power than natural muscle of the same weight and length." When Baughman says power, he's referring to the the rate at which these artificial muscles perform (i.e. the work they carry out per unit time). It's a measurement that most people are accustomed to hearing expressed in units of horsepower. Buaghman's fishing line muscles can generate about seven horsepower of mechanical power per kilogram of polymer fiber. That's the kind of power-to-weight ratio you see with jet engines –about five-times that of your typical internal combustion engine.
The researchers' artificial muscles can be triggered by a range of stimuli, but the common denominator of activation is heat. In the video a couple of paragraphs up, a bundle of 4 artificial muscles made from fishing line contracts and relaxes when exposed to an intermittent bath of hot water, lifting and releasing a 30-pound stack of weights.
Another approach, illustrated by the animation on the left, is to create a coil of artificial muscle from silver-coated nylon sewing thread, which can be heated by passing electricity through it and passively cooled by immersing it in water. In this demonstration, a 180 micrometer diameter (about twice the width of an average human hair) piece of silver-coated nylon is used to lift and release a 100g weight at a rate of five times a second. A third option is to coat coiled threads with a material that absorbs photons and heating them by and exposing them to light.
Cheap, Strong and Versatile
Baughman and his colleagues report that their new artificial muscles are every bit as strong and effective as shape memory alloys (some of which have been around for close to half a century), and other artificial muscle materials like carbon nanotubes. Existing artificial muscle technologies are also more difficult to produce, and often less mechanically efficient than these simple coils of twisted fishing line. And here's the real kicker: the materials used in conventional artificial muscles can be orders of magnitude more expensive than high-strength polymer fiber. For example, the carbon nanotubes used to design the artificial muscle Baughman himself engineered in 2011 runs on the order of $5,000 per kilogram. The same quantity of fishing line costs just five bucks.
What's more, existing technologies are often plagued by something call hysteresis. Hysteresis, in the world of materials science, means that the activity of your artificial muscle depends not only on temperature, but on the history of the muscle's activity. The upshot is that shape memory alloys can't be used effectively if you want to control the position of your artificial muscle with any degree of sensitivity. Baughman's fishing-line muscles don't have that problem, and in fact demonstrate a wide range of precise, temperature-dependent control.
The team's artificial muscles also demonstrate impressive versatility. The performance of each coil can be varied based on the weight applied to the end of the cord during twist insertion, and, of course, by the total number of twists. A cord forced to coil in a direction opposite its twist-direction will expand when heated, rather than contract. Fibers can be twisted, coiled, pleated, plied and braided into all manner of configurations, some with the aid of a heat gun (what basically amounts to a fancy hair dryer, the heat gun is used to fix the cord into a desired configuration through a process known as "annealing"), and many without. The results are beautiful, and, in theory, limitless:
Artificial muscle configurations, courtesy AAAS
Arguably the most important property of these muscles, when it comes to versatility, is their scalability. "We can use 2 pound test line or we can use 700 pound test line," Baughman tells us, "and if we insert twist identically in those two different fibers we can get the same work per volume capabilities for both synthetic muscles." The difference, of course, is that the large diameter muscle lifts a lot of weight, while the small diameter muscle lifts a little. How you bundle the fibers matters, too: a single length of artificial muscles, made from a fishing line about ten times the width of a human hair, can lift about 16 pounds. Arrange 125 of them together and you could lift a ton.
So what can they do?
Versatility in strength and size translates to versatility in implementation – we're talking nano-scale, macro-scale, and everything in between. Here is a handful of the potential applications that Baughman listed when he talked to us:
Musculature for humanoid robots (yes, he started with humanoid robots).
Designing realistic face musculature for humanoid robots, to address issues surrounding the uncanny valley.
Comfort adjusting textiles that change their porosity, and therefore their breathability, in response to their environment (the animation at the top of this post demonstrates the team's proof of concept for this application).
Gas or liquid filters that open and close in a temperature-dependent fashion.
Nanoscale architecture (in the development, for example, of more efficient labs-on-chips).
Here's an application that we found particularly interesting, which you can see in this animation. This is a window shutter, eletrothermally driven by a coiled stretch of silver-coated nylon, that reacts to ambient temperature to open and close, thereby regulating the inside temperature of the building in which it is installed.
"Another thing we've done is use these muscles for harvesting waste thermal energy," says Baughman. Many industrial processes release heat as a byproduct – heat that could be used to power coils of artificial muscle polymers. "Imagine you have a hot waste stream and available cold water," says Baughman. "We found you can pass hot water cold water over our muscles and generate about seven horsepower of mechanical energy per kilogram of polymer."
Baughman couldn't tell us about the "strangest" applications for his team's new artificial muscles, "for both publication and patent reasons" – but then, he says, that's the nature of a discovery as new as this. "We're improving what we have. Shape memory wire is more than fifty years old. Our technology is just a little over a year old. This is just the beginning."
Boris Yakobson – a professor of materials science and mechanical engineering at Rice University who was not involved in the study – praised the researchers' work for its "multiscale nature" in an email to io9. "With the clever micromechanical design of a twisted fiber, it connects the fundamentals of conformational entropy of the molecular chains in everyday fishing line right on through to the overall macro-contraction, which can be utilized in variety of tantalizing applications."
That Baughman's team's design is as versatile, affordable and easy to reproduce as it is suggests that we could see it popping up on real-world applications very soon. As for right now, Baughman says his team is focused on increasing the efficiency of its artificial muscles. Yakobson, for his part, agrees there could be room for improvement in this area.
"I wonder how the [cooling of the artificial muscles] can be accelerated for faster actuator performance," he writes. "Immersion into liquids, which the researchers suggest, can help with cooling, but on the other hand its viscosity may slow down the mechanics, so there should be room for optimization there."
Google have jumped on the wearable electronics band wagon with a prototype contact lens which could be a lifeline to millions of diabetes sufferers worldwide. The lens measures the glucose levels in the tears of the wearer using a minute sensor, which it analyses to assess their blood sugar level.
An Artificial Photosynthesis Synthesis developed by Panasonic could solve Global warming & Energy issues. Efficiency level on the part with plant have been achieved , with CO2 being converted into useful organic substances. In the future, Panasonic hopes to operate artificial photosynthesis plants, which would absorb CO2 from factories & produce Ethanol.
For the first time, scientists have created human lungs in a lab -- an exciting step forward in regenerative medicine, but an advance that likely won't help patients for many years.
"It's so darn cool," said Joan Nichols, a researcher at the University of Texas Medical Branch. "It's been science fiction and we're moving into science fact."If the lungs work -- and that's a big if -- they could help the more than 1,600 people awaiting a lung transplant. Lungs are one of many body parts being manufactured in the lab -- some parts, such as tracheas and livers, are even further along.
"Whole-organ engineering is going to work as a solution to the organ donor shortage," said Dr. Stephen Badylak, deputy director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
Image A is before new cells were reseeded. The finished product is image B.
The researchers in Galveston, Texas, started with lungs from two children who'd died from trauma, most likely a car accident, Nichols said. Their lungs were too damaged to be used for transplantation, but they did have some healthy tissue.
They took one of the lungs and stripped away nearly everything, leaving a scaffolding of collagen and elastin.
The scientists then took cells from the other lung and put them on the scaffolding. They immersed the structure in a large chamber filled with a liquid "resembling Kool-Aid," Nichols said, which provided nutrients for the cells to grow. After about four weeks, an engineered human lung emerged.
The lab-made lungs look very much like the real thing, Nichols says, just pinker, softer and less dense.
Nichols said she thinks it will be another 12 years or so until they'll be ready to try using these lungs for transplants.
"My students will be doing the work when I'm old and retired and can't hold a pipette anymore," she said.
Artificial intelligence is an ever evolving goal for researchers, and the object of endless fascination for writers, filmmakers, and the general public. But despite our best science fiction visions, creating digital intelligence is incredibly difficult. The universe is a very complicated place, and humans have had millions of years to evolve the ability to navigate and make sense of it.
Contemporary attempts to create AI have us looking more at how our own brains work to see how a computer could simulate the core activities that create our intelligence. No matter how we get there, it is certain that artificial intelligence will have tremendous impact on our society and economy, and lead us down a path towards evolving our own definitions of humanity. Video:http://www.sciencegymnasium.com/2013/11/the-rise-of-artificial-intelligence.html
8 Great Philosophical Questions That We'll Never Solve
Philosophy goes where hard science can't, or won't. Philosophers have a license to speculate about everything from metaphysics to morality, and this means they can shed light on some of the basic questions of existence. The bad news? These are questions that may always lay just beyond the limits of our comprehension.
Here are eight mysteries of philosophy that we'll probably never resolve.
1. Why is there something rather than nothing?
Our presence in the universe is something too bizarre for words. The mundaneness of our daily lives cause us take our existence for granted — but every once in awhile we're cajoled out of that complacency and enter into a profound state of existential awareness, and we ask: Why is there all thisstuff in the universe, and why is it governed by such exquisitely precise laws? And why should anything exist at all? We inhabit a universe with such things as spiral galaxies, the aurora borealis, and SpongeBob Squarepants. And as Sean Carroll notes, "Nothing about modern physics explains why we have these laws rather than some totally different laws, although physicists sometimes talk that way — a mistake they might be able to avoid if they took philosophers more seriously." And as for the philosophers, the best that they can come up with is the anthropic principle — the notion that our particular universe appears the way it does by virtue of our presence as observers within it — a suggestion that has an uncomfortably tautological ring to it.
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2. Is our universe real?
This the classic Cartesian question. It essentially asks, how do we know that what we see around us is the real deal, and not some grand illusion perpetuated by an unseen force (who René Descartes referred to as the hypothesized ‘evil demon')? More recently, the question has been reframed as the "brain in a vat" problem, or theSimulation Argument. And it could very well be that we're the products of an elaborate simulation. A deeper question to ask, therefore, is whether the civilization running the simulation is also in a simulation — a kind of supercomputer regression (or simulationception). Moreover, we may not be who we think we are. Assuming that the people running the simulation are also taking part in it, our true identities may be temporarily suppressed, to heighten the realness of the experience. This philosophical conundrum also forces us to re-evaluate what we mean by "real." Modal realistsargue that if the universe around us seems rational (as opposed to it being dreamy, incoherent, or lawless), then we have no choice but to declare it as being real and genuine. Or maybe, as Cipher said after eating a piece of "simulated" steak in The Matrix, "Ignorance is bliss."
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3. Do we have free will?
Also called the dilemma of determinism, we do not know if our actions are controlled by a causal chain of preceding events (or by some other external influence), or if we're truly free agents making decisions of our own volition. Philosophers (and now some scientists) have been debating this for millennia, and with no apparent end in sight. If our decision making is influenced by an endless chain of causality, then determinism is true and we don't have free will. But if the opposite is true, what's called indeterminism, then our actions must be random — what some argue is still not free will. Conversely, libertarians (no, not political libertarians, those are other people), make the case for compatibilism — the idea that free will is logically compatible with deterministic views of the universe. Compounding the problem are advances in neuroscience showing that our brains make decisions before we're even conscious of them. But if we don't have free will, then why did we evolve consciousness instead of zombie-minds? Quantum mechanics makes this problem even more complicated by suggesting that we live in a universe of probability, and that determinism of any sort is impossible. And as Linas Vepstas has said, "Consciousness seems to be intimately and inescapably tied to the perception of the passage of time, and indeed, the idea that the past is fixed and perfectly deterministic, and that the future is unknowable. This fits well, because if the future were predetermined, then there'd be no free will, and no point in the participation of the passage of time."
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4. Does God exist?
Simply put, we cannot know if God exists or not. Both the atheists and believers are wrong in their proclamations, and the agnostics are right. True agnostics are simply being Cartesian about it, recognizing the epistemological issues involved and the limitations of human inquiry. We do not know enough about the inner workings of the universe to make any sort of grand claim about the nature of reality and whether or not a Prime Mover exists somewhere in the background. Many people defer to naturalism — the suggestion that the universe runs according to autonomous processes — but that doesn't preclude the existence of a grand designer who set the whole thing in motion (what's called deism). And as mentioned earlier, we may live in a simulation where the hacker gods control all the variables. Or perhaps the gnostics are right and powerful beings exist in some deeper reality that we're unaware of. These aren't necessarily the omniscient, omnipotent gods of the Abrahamic traditions — but they're (hypothetically) powerful beings nonetheless. Again, these aren't scientific questions per se — they're more Platonic thought experiments that force us to confront the limits of human experience and inquiry.
5. Is there life after death?
Before everyone gets excited, this is not a suggestion that we'll all end up strumming harps on some fluffy white cloud, or find ourselves shoveling coal in the depths of Hell for eternity. Because we cannot ask the dead if there's anything on the other side, we're left guessing as to what happens next. Materialists assume that there's no life after death, but it's just that — an assumption that cannot necessarily be proven. Looking closer at the machinations of the universe (or multiverse), whether it be through a classical Newtonian/Einsteinian lens, or through the spooky filter of quantum mechanics, there's no reason to believe that we only have one shot at this thing called life. It's a question of metaphysics and the possibility that the cosmos (what Carl Sagan described as "all that is or ever was or ever will be") cycles and percolates in such a way that lives are infinitely recycled. Hans Moravec put it best when, speaking in relation to the quantum Many Worlds Interpretation, said that non-observance of the universe is impossible; we must always find ourselves alive and observing the universe in some form or another. This is highly speculative stuff, but like the God problem, is one that science cannot yet tackle, leaving it to the philosophers.
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6. Can you really experience anything objectively?
There's a difference between understanding the world objectively (or at least trying to, anyway) and experiencing it through an exclusively objective framework. This is essentially the problem of qualia — the notion that our surroundings can only be observed through the filter of our senses and the cogitations of our minds. Everything you know, everything you've touched, seen, and smelled, has been filtered through any number of physiological and cognitive processes. Subsequently, your subjective experience of the world is unique. In the classic example, the subjective appreciation of the color red may vary from person to person. The only way you could possibly know is if you were to somehow observe the universe from the "conscious lens" of another person in a sort of Being John Malkovich kind of way — not anything we're likely going to be able to accomplish at any stage of our scientific or technological development. Another way of saying all this is that the universe can only be observed through a brain (or potentially a machine mind), and by virtue of that, can only be interpreted subjectively. But given that the universe appears to be coherent and (somewhat) knowable, should we continue to assume that its true objective quality can never be observed or known? It's worth noting that much of Buddhist philosophy is predicated on this fundamental limitation (what they call emptiness), and a complete antithesis to Plato's idealism.
7. What is the best moral system?
Essentially, we'll never truly be able to distinguish between "right" and "wrong" actions. At any given time in history, however, philosophers, theologians, and politicians will claim to have discovered the best way to evaluate human actions and establish the most righteous code of conduct. But it's never that easy. Life is far too messy and complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics. The Golden Rule is great (the idea that you should treat others as you would like them to treat you), but it disregards moral autonomy and leaves no room for the imposition of justice (such as jailing criminals), and can even be used to justify oppression (Immanuel Kant was among its most staunchest critics). Moreover, it's a highly simplified rule of thumb that doesn't provision for more complex scenarios. For example, should the few be spared to save the many? Who has more moral worth: a human baby or a full-grown great ape? And as neuroscientists have shown, morality is not only a culturally-ingrained thing, it's also a part of our psychologies (the Trolly Problem is the best demonstration of this). At best, we can only say that morality is normative, while acknowledging that our sense of right and wrong will change over time.
8. What are numbers?
We use numbers every day, but taking a step back, what are they, really — and why do they do such a damn good job of helping us explain the universe (such as Newtonian laws)? Mathematical structures can consist of numbers, sets, groups, and points — but are they real objects, or do they simply describe relationships that necessarily exist in all structures? Plato argued that numbers were real (it doesn't matter that you can't "see" them), but formalists insisted that they were merely formal systems (well-defined constructions of abstract thought based on math). This is essentially an ontological problem, where we're left baffled about the true nature of the universe and which aspects of it are human constructs and which are truly tangible.